| October 12, 2017

Podcast, Relationships & Family, Social Skills

Podcast #347: The Science of Social Awkwardness

You’ve likely experienced an awkward moment or two in your life. You say or do something that’s out of social sync, leaving the person you’re interacting with bemused, and you feeling like running and hiding under a rock. 

While awkwardness is an uncomfortable feeling and can hurt us socially, my guest today argues that there is some upside to it too. His name is Ty Tashiro. He’s a psychologist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. Today on the show Ty highlights his research on awkwardness. He explains what exactly we feel when we feel awkward and what triggers the feeling. He then digs into why some people are more awkward than others and the detriments that come with being socially awkward. Ty then shares things chronically awkward people can do to be less so, like developing social algorithms and studying manners. We end our conversation discussing the upsides of awkwardness and how to balance it with the downsides. 

If you struggle with awkwardness or know someone who does, this episode will provide you a lot of actionable advice and insights on both embracing and mitigating your social propensities. 

Show Highlights

  • How does a researcher get into studying awkwardness
  • The many names of social awkwardness
  • What defines being socially awkward?
  • The old Norse root of the word “awkward,” and what it can tell us about the state
  • Why do humans even feel awkwardness? What purpose does it serve?
  • Why social awkwardness is more common in the modern day
  • How do awkward people see the world differently?
  • Is awkwardness simply something on the autism spectrum?
  • Do awkward people know they’re awkward?
  • Ty’s own experience being awkward
  • Why making friends in adulthood is especially hard, and awkward
  • Why it’s okay to actually have enthusiasm about things!
  • Why are millennials really into manners?
  • Why dating is more awkward today than ever before
  • The benefits — yes, benefits! — of being socially awkward
  • The “rage for mastery”

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

awkward book cover ty tashiro

Awkward is not only packed with useful insights about social awkwardness, but it’s funny too. I laughed out loud at several points in the book when Ty shared his awkward moments from middle school. Grab your copy today.

Connect With Ty

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Ty on Twitter

Ty on Instagram

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Recorded with ClearCast.io.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. You’ve likely experienced an awkward moment or two in your life; you say or do something that’s socially out of sync, leaving the person you’re interacting with bemused and confused, and you feeling like running and hiding under a rock.

While awkwardness is an uncomfortable feeling and can hurt us socially, my guest today argues that there is some upside to it. His name is Ty Tashiro. He’s a psychologist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. Today on the show, Ty highlights his research on awkwardness. He explains what exactly we feel when we feel awkward and what triggers the feeling. He then digs into why some people are more awkward than others and the detriments that come with being socially awkward. He then shares things chronically awkward people can do to be less so, like developing social algorithms and studying manners. We end our conversation discussing the upsides of awkwardness and how to balance it with the downsides.

If you struggle with social awkwardness or know someone who does, this episode will provide you with a lot of actionable advice and insights on both embracing and mitigating your propensities. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/awkward, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

All right. Ty Tashiro, welcome to the show.

Ty Tashiro: Hey. Thanks so much for having me on.

Brett McKay: You’re a psychologist, and you’ve specialized in researching something, a particular … it’s a weird … I don’t want to say it’s weird. It’s different. You research awkwardness. How does a psychologist get into researching awkwardness?

Ty Tashiro: Well, that’s a good question. I got interested in social awkwardness about three years ago, and it was just one of these life experience things where I had a lot of friends who had moved to new cities or were in new jobs just kind of coincidentally at the same time, and some of these folks were socially awkward. I knew them to be great people; they had great character and were really interesting and had a lot to offer, but they did have that awkwardness where they stumbled around and were a little bit clumsy in the initial parts of social interactions. I thought to myself, “If they could just skip the first five minutes of social interactions, they’d probably be a lot better off.”

I thought it was really too bad that other people weren’t giving them a chance based on some of these small social graces that they had difficulty handling, and so I got into the research literature and I thought, “People must be looking at social awkwardness.” It turns out nobody in the research community calls social awkwardness “awkwardness.” They have all kinds of other terms for it, but there’s been over a thousand studies that are related to social awkwardness that can tell us why people are awkward and also reveals this surprising upside to having an awkward disposition.

Brett McKay: Yeah. What do researchers call awkwardness?

Ty Tashiro: Oh, they have all kinds of things. Social psychologists will call it a social skill deficit. You have behavioral geneticists who will call it the broad autism phenotype, which is a very jargainy term to say that you have social skill deficits, some troubles communicating, and you tend to get these obsessive interests where you really get narrowly focused on something that you really love.

Brett McKay: Okay. Awkwardness, let’s describe what it is. It’s just a feeling of ineptitude in small social situations. What causes us to feel awkward?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, so we can think about it a lot of different ways. There is that emotional component to it. People will say, “This feels really awkward,” and you get that visceral sensation of discomfort. If you’re the one being awkward in a moment, then it feels like walking nose first into a glass door, and kind of catches you by surprise and you’re really disoriented. It’s what psychologists would call a high activation emotion, meaning that your heart rate is really going, you’re sweating, your muscles are tense. It’s not a great emotional state, actually, to problem-solve. People have probably had the experience of doing something awkward, and then whatever they do to try to fix it actually makes the situation worse. It’s because we’re so panicked. We want to make the situation right.

Awkwardness can be emotional. One of the favorite definitions for me is the root of the word “awkward,” which is an old Norse word “öfugr,” and that means “facing a different direction.” I really like that because it tells us a lot about what the psychological research shows us with awkwardness, which is that awkward people see the world differently. They might miss social cues or social expectations that are in plain sight to everybody else, but it also means that they’re looking at something unusual or different, and that might be valuable or interesting in the long run.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ll get to those upsides of awkwardness. Why do we have that feeling? There’s evolutionary reasons why we feel happiness, why we feel depressed. Why feel awkward?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, I think why feel awkward, and there’s also why feel awkward so strongly?

Brett McKay: Right.

Ty Tashiro: A lot of times, awkward situations are not life-or-death situations. If your fly is undone, that’s not going to kill anybody. It’s not going to hurt you, but, boy, we get really worked up about it. It probably goes back to the idea that we’re such social animals as humans.

If you look back at hunter-gatherer times, which was the majority of human history, those were social groups of under 50 people, and everybody knew everybody. Your survival was not guaranteed, so life expectancy for most of human history, up to about 150 years ago, was under 40 years old. It was a life-or-death battle every day, and you needed everybody to be focused on the same long-term goals, like getting food or shelter, protecting each other, so you needed a really cohesive, efficient social unit.

That’s why we’re so attuned to small social behaviors that are out of place, because you didn’t want to find out that Larry was stealing food from the storage shed when everybody is starving or that someone was going to betray you in a battle once you’re involved in it. You needed to know beforehand if people were going to deviate from the larger social expectations.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. You argue in the book that feeling awkward … We’ve felt it since caveman times. You argue that feeling awkward is more common in our modern day. Why is that?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, there’s been a lot of large sociological changes that have made all of us feel a little bit more awkward. One of the obvious ones is easy to overlook, is that we’re more urban than we used to be, so we interact with, certainly, more than 50 people on a daily basis oftentimes, and a lot of those folks are strangers. When we go to the coffee shop or the grocery store, we don’t know most of the people we’re surrounded by. That’s actually unusual in the course of human history. All these different folks might have different cultural expectations or social expectations, and that puts us in this state of unknowing and this state of trying to connect with people when we don’t really know where they’re coming from or what their background is. That can make us feel awkward.

I think another thing is technology is just something that we’re getting used to still, and there’s so many different forms. Your etiquette over text versus Facebook versus Instagram or LinkedIn, there’s all different social expectations for what you do in those different mediums, and also how you behave, so that’s a little bit tricky to figure out how to navigate these things.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, Curb Your Enthusiasm. When you said that idea we’re surrounded by strangers who have different ideas of what’s appropriate, Curb Your Enthusiasm is basically the show that highlights that.

Ty Tashiro: That is so true. I mean, he does such a great job of pointing out that there’s all these little mysteries to social life on a daily basis, some of which strike us as quite odd, but we don’t really want to ask anybody else if those things are odd. I think a lot of us feel that. It’s good to know, actually, that, hey, most of your fellow human beings are feeling uncomfortable in a lot of these same social situations that feel ambiguous or nebulous to you.

Brett McKay: Right. Going back to technology, one of the things you talk about in the book is that, with technology, you miss out on nuance, right? You don’t have that face-to-face where you can look at facial expressions, body language, so it’s hard to detect, okay, was he being sarcastic or was that a joke?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, that is so true. It’s so easy to misinterpret what somebody else is saying, and it creates a lot of anxiety in the person on the other end. Even if someone doesn’t text you back right away, you can feel anxious about, gosh, did I say something stupid or are they mad at me? Oftentimes, we find out that was just needless anxiety, but that’s what happens with technological communication.

We don’t have things … Even how far you stand from somebody sends a lot of social information, or the amount of eye contact. Tactile, touch is a huge thing. Even the intonation of somebody’s voice conveys a tremendous amount of social information. If you’re on email or text, you’re missing out on these wide variety of cues that we’re actually wired to be attentive to, to decode what somebody else might be thinking.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. You mentioned earlier that awkward people, the word “awkward” comes from that Norse word for “looking a different direction,” so awkward people see the world differently. How do they see the world differently compared to non-awkward people?

Ty Tashiro: I like to use this spotlight analogy to explain how awkward people see the world. Imagine you see life unfold before you on a stage, and that stage is broadly illuminated, so you could see people coming on stage, exiting the stage. You’d probably spend most of your time center stage because that’s where most of the central interactions would take place, but you could also gather social context. That’s how most people see the social world, is broadly illuminated.

Now, awkward people, on the other hand, see their stage spotlighted, and that spotlight tends to fall a little bit left of center by thought experiment. That means they’re going to miss out on some of the key social information that’s taking place center stage, but it also means that they’re seeing other aspects of what’s going on in a great degree of detail, and so they tend to have tremendous focus. Whatever they see under that spotlight is seen with brilliant clarity, and so that can be a good thing, but what you have to do when you’re an awkward person is you have to learn to, one, recognize that you’re prone to missing certain social cues or social expectations, and you have to learn to move that spotlight to the right places at the right time. It takes a little bit more choreography in your mind.

Brett McKay: Right. This attention to detail that awkward people have, this focus and missing social cues, when you hear that, it sounds like that’s the traits of the autism spectrum. Is awkwardness simply on the autism spectrum, or can you be awkward and not be on the spectrum?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, you know, as I got into the research, I actually realized that was an important distinction to make because I think it’s something in broader popular culture that we get a little bit confused about. It turns out that autism symptoms, which are also Asperger symptoms, there are three components. There are the social skill deficits, there’s the communication problems, and then these obsessive interests.

Those symptoms fall along a bell curve in the general population, which means that the average person in the middle of that bell curve actually has a few autistic characteristics, actually. Now, as you get further out towards the edge of that curve — let’s say, the 85th to 98th percentile — that’s kind of where the awkward people sit. Then once you cross the 99th percentile, that top one percentile, that’s where you diagnose somebody as autistic or with Asperger’s.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. The spotlight effect that people who are awkward tend to have, what else is going on in their brain with that spotlight effect? Does it cause them to … What do they miss, specifically, whenever they’re interacting socially? Is it body cues? Is it meaning behind words? What’s going on there?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah. If you talk to an awkward person, a lot of times they’ll say they’re drawn to whatever is sparkly in a room, which you would think that they’re kidding about that, but it’s actually sometimes true. They tend to focus on these peripheral sorts of things. When non-awkward people walk into a room, let’s say, at a cocktail party or some kind of mixer, what non-awkward people do is they instinctively look for the most powerful person in the room. They’re really good at identifying that without even having to think about it. Then what they’ll do is they’ll look that person directly in the eyes to try to figure out what’s their mood or what are they thinking.

Non-awkward people do that without having to think twice about making sense of the social scene. Awkward people walk into a room, and they tend to focus on the nonsocial aspects of the situation. They might look at the art or the architecture or the lighting or anything except what’s social, and in a social situation, obviously, you should probably be devoting your attention to those kinds of cues. Right off the bat, they’re missing all kinds of contextual information when they enter a social scene.

Brett McKay: Do awkward people know that they’re awkward?

Ty Tashiro: Usually, yeah. Most of the time, they know that I kind of struggle here in certain social situations and can be a little bit off. I don’t know that it’s always something that they want to think about a lot, but if you get into a real honest conversation with an awkward person, they’ll say, “Yeah, I’m pretty awkward.” Sometimes, in rare cases, if someone is really awkward, you actually might get a lack of social awareness in those situations, but most people do know.

Brett McKay: Right. Are awkward people, are they socially anxious? Do they have social anxiety? Are they afraid to interact, or they’re not afraid, they just don’t have the skills to interact adeptly or adroitly?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, that’s a really good point because the key component to social anxiety is that the worry is irrational or unfounded. I think, to tell the truth, with awkward people, they probably should be a little bit more worried than the average person about how they’re going to handle a social situation because they have evidence that they mishandle social situations more often than the average person.

I actually think, as long as it’s not debilitating, as long as it doesn’t keep them from being social or doesn’t compromise their ability to interact calmly in a situation, some of that social anxiety might be helpful because it motivates you to think ahead about, okay, what’s this event, and what are the expectations, and how can I prime my brain to think about the things I need to do, which is one of the good things about social awkwardness, which is when awkward people think deliberately ahead of time about how to handle a situation, they do significantly better. Compared to people who aren’t awkward, who can just walk in and automatically be social, awkward people have to do some of that forethought to have a good interaction.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, you talk about if you have a child that’s awkward or if you yourself are awkward, one of the things is kind of create … basically, they’re algorithms for social interactions, like if-then … I guess implementation intentions is what they’re called in the psychological field. Can you give us an example of those?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah. I can give you one from personal life, actually. When I was a kid, when we would go to the Wendy’s to get something to eat … and this would go on for a long time. Imagine you’re 10, 11, 12 years old. Most families would just go to the Wendy’s and go inside. My parents would park the car, they’d turn around, and they’d say, “Ty, it’s time to mentally prepare.” I’d say, “Okay.” I knew exactly what that meant. They were going to walk me through a Socratic dialogue about the kinds of social expectations I’d encounter inside and have me talk through how I was going to handle those.

They might say, “What’s the first thing you need to look for when you walk inside?” I’d say, “Well, I should look for a line.” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s right.” Sometimes I’d walk in and I’d cut to the front of the line, not because I wanted to cheat or get ahead of anybody else, just because I didn’t see it or I didn’t think about it. Okay, so now I’m at the back of the line. Now, what do you need to do? I should think about what I need to order. I should get my money ready. When I get to the cashier, I should say thank you. When I turn around, I should be careful not to hit anybody with my tray because I’m going too fast.

We would go step-by-step through these things, and we would do these mental preparation drills for these different situations dozens and dozens of times. Eventually, I would get it, and I can happily walk into a Wendy’s now and order for myself and make the whole thing go smoothly. That’s how awkward life goes. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and persistence from parents, and I think kindness, too, to understand that their kid doesn’t love being in this kind of situation. That kind of extra coaching is really vital to them being able to navigate social life.

Brett McKay: So you were an awkward kid growing up.

Ty Tashiro: Oh, yeah, super awkward. I’ve been awkward for as long as I can remember. I think when I was younger, you don’t really realize it, because when you’re in grade school, your peers are pretty forgiving about things. As junior high started to approach, I had an internal realization that I needed to pull it together. My parents certainly did, too, and I’m really thankful that I had folks, teachers, parents, coaches, who saw that I just needed a little extra encouragement and instruction. That made all the difference in the world.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love the story when you went to junior high for the first time, and the first day of school, you dressed like an accountant.

Ty Tashiro: I still do, actually. Yeah, I had pleated khakis, a buttoned-up starched Oxford, and these enormous square glasses that looked like bifocals, and I’m going to my first day of seventh grade.

Brett McKay: I mean, I love it because it was so relatable. I think everyone has done that at some point. They thought they were doing the thing that would make them fit in and make them look awesome, but we come to find out, no.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, kind of the harder we try sometimes, the worse it goes.

Brett McKay: Right.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah. My thinking behind that was, and I thought all summer about this, but I thought I needed to convey a mature and professional image in junior high because I was stepping up to this more mature environment, which turned out to not be true. I thought, yeah, if I look the part, then that-

Brett McKay: Now, my awkward story from when I was a kid, I was in elementary school. I think it was like third grade maybe. My sister, at the time, she was in high school, and this is when New Kids on the Block were big. She was a big New Kids on the Block fan. I thought, “Okay, my sister, she’s in high school, I must like New Kids on the Block too.” I think she was in middle school at the time. So I got a New Kids on the Block lunchbox.

I remember I brought it to school and I thought this was going to be the coolest thing ever. I pull it out, and everyone is like, “What in the world? Why do you have a New Kids on the Block?” I remember the kids, what you would do at lunch, you would set your lunchbox up so it was on its side. People could see the cover of your lunchbox, and you’d hide behind it. I didn’t do that. I would hide it. I think I just stopped. I went and I just told my mom, “I want a paper sack from here on out because I can’t do this.”

Ty Tashiro: Retreat. Full retreat from the … Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, I think, well, hey, I can respect the thought behind it, though. It seemed like it should work.

Brett McKay: It seemed like it should’ve worked, but it did not.

Okay, so being thoughtful about your social interactions and really breaking down every interaction into component parts can be very helpful. You also talk about being less awkward with friends. I know we’ve had people on the podcast talk about men in their 20s and 30s. It gets hard to make friends. It’s easy to make friends when you’re a kid. For some reason, it gets hard to make friends as an adult. Why is it so awkward as an adult to make friends? When you were a kid, you could just like, “Hey, let’s be friends,” and you guys did. Now it feels weird trying to make that connection with somebody else.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, it totally does. Some of the demographic data about loneliness supports this. In fact, for men, men are more lonely than women on average, but the loneliest group demographically in the United States are young adult men, actually. They have a really hard time connecting with each other, and that changes dramatically from high school and the college years. I think part of the problem is just this broader cultural belief that we need to be cool.

Geno Auriemma, the coach for UConn women’s basketball, he had a great press conference a while ago, and they were asking him, “Why have you been the most successful program, maybe in college basketball, period?” He said, “The key is that we recruit kids who are enthusiastic.” He said it’s so hard to find people who are unapologetically enthusiastic about what they love because there’s so much pressure to be cool and kind of aloof and detached.

That really resonated with me, and I think that’s really consistent with what we see in the psychological data, which is that when we move to young adulthood, for some reason that aloofness and that detachment, we think that’s the way that we need to present ourselves and interact with people. Of course, if we take a step back from it, that’s a really good way to not have friends. If somehow we could sign a treaty among all adults and just say, “Hey, let’s drop the pretense and let’s just say that we don’t have friends and we’re a little bit lonely and let’s hang out,” things would go a lot better for each other.

I think, also, part of it is being urban. The more concentrated an urban population is, the more aloof and detached people come across, and it’s partly that we don’t want to get overwhelmed with too many friends, or friends that we’re stuck with that we didn’t really want maybe, so we err on the side of being overly cautious.

Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing I’ve learned, too, is that people are reluctant to make the first move, but I think that everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move, right?

Ty Tashiro: That’s so true.

Brett McKay: They’re waiting for someone else to invite them to do the thing, so you might as well be the person that does the inviting.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah. I think, especially among men, we can be nervous about asking another guy to do things sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be weird. You can just find a point of common interest that’s … There’s just a few things that really predict how people become friends, and one of them is proximity. Put yourself in situations where you’re nearby other people that you could become friends with. That sounds so common sense, but we don’t do that all the time. Sometimes we’re at home with our Netflix or our Xbox or whatever else, and that’s okay, but if it’s taking us away from interactive situations, then that’s a problem.

The other thing is similarity. Birds of a feather tend to flock together more often than opposites attract. A real great way to ask somebody to hang out is just to go back to something where you found out that you shared a common interest and say, “Hey, do you want to go watch the football game?” or “Do you want to go golfing?” or whatever else. That’s a really easy way to make that initial step.

Brett McKay: You highlight research that I thought was interesting about millennials and manners, how they’re really into manners. What’s going on there? Why has this been this uptick in interest amongst 20-somethings about Emily Post?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, right. It seems a bit odd, right? I’m a Gen-Xer, and I remember being really bitter when people tried to impose manners upon me. I think that was actually common for Boomers and Gen-Xers. Millennials, interestingly enough, are going a lot to YouTube and they’re watching these videos about how to go to a nice restaurant or how to dress appropriately for a work event, and they’re really interested in picking up on these social graces that they’ve apparently not picked up while they were growing up.

It’s really kind of neat because they’re saying, “Hey, I want to be sure I’m respectful. I want to be sure that I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes and presenting myself in a respectful manner.” I think it’s actually a really neat thing, but the implication there, I think, is that for whatever reason, social life got so laid-back when they were kids that they didn’t pick up these social graces that they really want because that helps to structure a social interaction and take some of the anxiety and the awkwardness out.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Manners are algorithms to combat awkwardness.

Ty Tashiro: They totally are. The most awkward people I know, when they really want to do well socially, they study manners. Sometimes you’ll run into awkward people who are overly rigid with their manners, or overly formal, and it’s actually an endearing quality because what they’ve done is they’ve tried to prepare themselves ahead of time to interact in a way that was respectable and socially acceptable.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, you talk about the people who read the 1950s etiquette guides, and they try to bust that out, then it makes it even more awkward.

Ty Tashiro: I had a couple students who did that. I think I had given a lecture one time about how, hey, if you’re a little bit awkward, you can study manners, and that’s a good thing to do. I forgot to say you should get the most recent edition of the manuals, so I had a couple students doing these, yeah, old-timey kinds of manners, and found out that they had gotten the used copy from 30 years ago.

Brett McKay: Right. Well, you also talk about dating. Dating has always been awkward, courtship, right?

Ty Tashiro: Oh, yeah.

Brett McKay: You argue that it’s more awkward than ever. Why is that? Is it what we’ve been talking about before? It’s like there’s more strangers. It’s more ambiguity about what’s acceptable. Technology? Is that what’s all going on there?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, that’s part of it, I think. One thing that’s happening is people aren’t marrying as much, or aren’t married, period. The rate of single people in the United States is higher than it’s ever been. We’re dating a lot more than we used to, so that’s part of it. If someone has never been married, then they’re dating for longer than any other generation has. Millennials, compared to baby boomers, are waiting basically twice as long to marry compared to boomers, who were married by 22, 23 years old, so you’re just dating a lot more.

I think the second thing are the dating apps. Here’s a new cultural medium where you need to interact with people. I think apps are great and fine, but there’s new rules there, so it can be pretty uncomfortable knowing how to be appropriate or how to handle other people’s inappropriate behavior in these online forums. Yeah, it’s really kind of ambiguous. It was easier in some ways for boomers. They were married by 22, 23, so that kind of took care of it. Now we’re 27, 28, 29, still dating, and it’s a little bit awkward.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I guess when there was an end goal of marriage, you had this end goal where you could define the relationship, right? Now it’s like, well, what are we? What’s going on here? People don’t really have those explicit conversations, and they end up just awkward.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah. I tried to look at the research on the different types of relationships. Serious, married, single, friends with benefits, there’s all these different categories. The way it looked visually was like a voting map of districts for voting. I actually called one of the sections in that chapter “gerrymandering the friend zone” because it’s kind of ambiguous. Are we just friends, or friends with benefits, or what is this thing that we’re doing?

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about the downsides of awkwardness. It can get in the way of social interaction. A lot of your success in life and happiness in life depends on your social fluidity, how you’re able to manage that, but you talk about that while there’s some downsides to being an awkward person, there are some upsides. What are the benefits to being awkward?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, one of the things to know, I think, is that although awkward people can struggle with some of the social skills or social expectations, it doesn’t mean that they’re not likable. I think as long as people can show, can convey, that they’re fair and they’re kind people who would be loyal friends, then they can have a really rich social life. I’ve been really lucky pretty much throughout my life that I’ve had really rich, gratifying social relationships, and people were willing to overlook my social awkwardness because I was able to convey that, hey, I’ve got a good heart and I’m trying to do the right thing here. It might be a little clumsy at the start, but we’ll get there. I think that’s one thing for awkward people to know.

I think a second thing that’s really interesting is the spotlighted focus, if we come back to that. You have the sharp focus and you see things with a great degree of detail, and awkward people tend to really love whatever it is they’re interested in. They just take it next level. We might like Star Wars, for example, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll dress up like Chewbacca and go walk around the streets. We might like video games, but we don’t necessarily get in chat rooms and go to conventions. Awkward people are kind of nerdy in that way. They’re really enthusiastic about the things they love. I think that alone, by itself, is a great quality.

If you combine the sharp focus and this attention to detail and this great enthusiasm, those are actually ingredients for what psychologists would call deliberate practice. You might have heard that in the popular press with the 10,000 hours people need to devote to become expert or good at something. The qualities awkward people have actually dispose them towards deliberate practice, and that can lead to some extraordinary outcomes or even innovative breakthroughs sometimes.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you called that … I love that phrase. I’d never heard it before, but the rage for mastery.

Ty Tashiro: Yes.

Brett McKay: A lot of awkward people have.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, so a separate line of research on gifted children done by Ellen Winner, she’s a great researcher at Boston College, and she coined this phrase “the rage to master.” What she found was these chess geniuses or mathematical geniuses or precocious ballerinas, they all had this kind of obsessive quality to perfect the different skills and components that were necessary to become great in their field. Importantly, one of the things that they do, these kids with this rage to master, is that they spend a disproportionate amount of time on the things that they’re worst at. If they love football or something like that, and they’re not a great tackler, let’s say, they will spend extra time working on that thing that’s actually their weakness. That’s part of why they end up becoming really good at something in the long run.

Brett McKay: Right. Then the downside is they might alienate themselves from others. You have to balance that out with being intentional about your social skills as well.

Ty Tashiro: Oh yeah. Probably everybody knows someone who is very successful and who just can’t shut it off. They’re working at all times. Even when they come home, they’re still on their phone or they’re still obsessing about work. Yeah, that’s one of the tricks is you have to find a way to compartmentalize these things so that when you are working, you’re going 120% and giving it your best, but there have to be hard stops where you say, “Okay, I’m putting that way. Now is the time to devote 100% of my energy to being social and being present,” especially for awkward people who might have trouble with social interaction anyways. They need to bring 100% of their effort to these social situations.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. You talk about this in the book. The upside of awkwardness, this intense focus, that can make you very skillful at what you do, but as you talk about in the book, a lot of success in life is being able to persuade people that you have a product or a skill that is of use to them. You have to balance your intense focus, your rage to master, with the ability to socialize, as well.

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, absolutely true. That was another great message I got when I was growing up, from mentors and parents. They said, “Hey, you can be as clever as you want to be, but if you can’t connect your ideas to people in a way that’s understandable and useful, then it’s going to be really hard for you to get to where you want to go.” That really resonated with me, and I’m really glad that they emphasized that you need to take a step back, Ty, and you need to think about how you’re going to make yourself a broader, more well-rounded person, because that wasn’t something that came naturally to me.

Brett McKay: Ty, this is a great book, and this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about the book and your work?

Ty Tashiro: Yeah, well, they can go to awkwardbook.com, and that’ll take them to my website. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all those places. Yeah, I’d really appreciate people checking it out.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Ty Tashiro, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Ty Tashiro: Hey, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Ty Tashiro. He’s the author of the book Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at tytashiro.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/awkward, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast, got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take a minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already, please tell a friend or two about the podcast. That helps out too. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: December 7, 2017

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